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The Unraveling of Deven Black: A Medical Mystery

What seemed like a midlife crisis ended up with a 62-year old man dead

spinner image Death of Deven Black: A Medical Murder Mystery
Deven Black showed patterns of strange behavior in 2013, including unusual financial transactions.
Photo illustration by Holly Andres

Part 1: The reckoning

JILL BLACK WAS tidying up around the house when she came upon a bunch of receipts that her husband, Deven, had stashed in his backpack — slips from MoneyGram, Western Union and other wire-transfer services near the couple’s suburban New York home. They showed cash transfers to people Jill had never heard of. Flipping through them, she soon realized they represented thousands of dollars. She felt sick.

It was November 2013. Several weeks earlier, Jill had found a similar receipt on the dining room table, for about $300. When she asked her husband about it, he told her it was for a colleague whose relative needed help with medical expenses. Though he had been vague about the details, the story made sense to her. “Deven liked to be the hero — the one to help out,” she says.

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This new stash was different. This was money she knew that he didn’t have. That they didn’t have. Her mind reeled. Deven’s career seemed to be going all right — in fact, he’d recently returned from accepting a national award for his work as a school librarian. So what on earth could this be about?

When Deven arrived home, Jill confronted him. Solidly built and standing over 6 feet tall, Deven slumped. But what struck Jill was that he didn’t seem to share her concern. And the more he shrugged things off, the more enraged Jill became. “Are you being blackmailed?” she all but screamed. He flailed for answers, and his explanations didn’t hold together. Finally, he told her the transfers were investments and assured her: “We’re going to get this money back.”

Jill didn’t believe it. The next day, she opened a bank account in her name and made arrangements to have the paychecks from her job as a writer-editor deposited there. The couple’s only child, Jonas, was in college upstate, and she wanted to protect her assets for his sake, as well as her own.

When Jill looks back to that day, she knows now it was a pivotal moment. Something was seriously wrong with Deven, but what? Was it a midlife crisis? An affair? A dawning addiction? Over the next two years, Jill would watch in something close to horror as her marriage of more than 30 years fell apart and Deven grew ever more distant — until he ended up living on the streets of New York City, lost and alone. And then came the phone call that filled in the details about her husband’s final days and brutal murder. 

But before that, beginning in the fall of 2013, and for the remaining years of Deven’s life, she would try to piece together the clues: What had happened to the bright, wry, loving soul she had married? Who — or what — really killed Deven Black? 

Part 2: A one-of-a-kind mind

THEY MET ON a blind date in 1980. Jill Rovitsky was visiting New York from her native St. Paul, Minnesota, and Deven played her gallant tour guide to Manhattan, where he had grown up. “Afternoon coffee became drinks became dinner, and then we must have walked around the city for hours,” recalls Jill, who today still gives off an artsy vibe with her patterned top, easy smile, specs and mass of brown curls. 

Later, as she got to know Deven better, she realized he could also be shy and somewhat awkward, “but he was curious about so many things,” she says. Though he had been smart enough to get into the elite Bronx High School of Science, he had dropped out, earned his GED and at 16 was admitted to the City University of New York. He dropped out again and this time made his way to Cape Cod, where he hosted a local radio talk show. Says his father, Arthur, “He probably got a better education out of college than he would have had in it, because he never stopped learning.”

He thought deeply about educational theory and policy. He really wanted to be recognized in his field, to leave a mark, to feel he mattered.”

— Emily Feiner, longtime friend

By the time Jill met Deven, he had returned to Manhattan to become the general manager of a popular downtown bar, the North Star Pub. He was, as one friend put it, “a total rock star in the world of craft beers,” introducing customers to British ales and early microbrews, and was quoted in the New York Times and elsewhere as an expert in the burgeoning field.  

He was funny and sharp, with a keen sense of the absurd. (Once, when at church camp a nephew built a birdhouse that featured Christian crosses as decoration, Deven joked, “It must be for cardinals.”) He also had a streak of the fabulist in him — embellishing things he had seen or done in stories he told. Jill was a stickler for the facts. He was a spendthrift; she was frugal. It made for good sport, and they had enough in common to make it a good match. They both enjoyed folk and rock music, and were obsessed with finding cheap ethnic food throughout New York City, becoming early contributors to Chowhound, a precursor and still a competitor to Yelp. They married in 1983.

spinner image Deven was a devoted dad to his son Jonas
Deven was a devoted dad to his son Jonas.

A few years later, they moved about 20 miles north of the city to the Hudson River town of Nyack, where, in 1994, they welcomed their son, Jonas.

“Deven really loved being a dad, and those were probably our closest times,” Jill says. “Sometimes your own child is the most entertaining person on earth.” Deven could be self-centered — it was one of his flaws — but he made room at the core of his world for his son. The new dad commuted to the State University of New York’s Empire State College to earn a bachelor’s degree, picked up a master’s in teaching at Fordham and joined the faculty at Castle Hill Middle School in the Bronx. But his idiosyncratic methods caused disagreements with his principal, as even Deven acknowledged. “I don’t believe in distinct subject areas. To me, knowledge is a holistic, completely interconnected, ever-growing thing,” he once told a reporter. Eventually, his principal suggested he might be a better fit as the school’s librarian. 

The role suited him perfectly. Longtime friend Emily Feiner, a clinical social worker, says that excelling as an educator was serious business to Deven: “He thought deeply about educational theory and policy. He really wanted to be recognized in his field, to leave a mark, to feel he mattered.”

Part 3: Strangers in the house

DEVEN'S BEHAVIOR had always been a tad eccentric, but it began to get odder. In May 2013, a student at the Castle Hill school complained that he had made her feel uncomfortable by touching her arm and saying she looked sexy. The principal suspended him and launched an investigation. “Deven was devastated by that,” Jill recalls. “He really didn’t know he’d upset someone.” 

Stuck at home in Nyack, he spent an inordinate amount of time online, emailing people Jill didn’t know. She had to insist he not bring his tablet or laptop to the dinner table. When she challenged him, he became placid and said it wouldn’t happen again but didn’t apologize. It was maddening to her, and the couple’s friends concluded he was experiencing a midlife crisis. His 60th birthday was approaching in October, and he dreaded it. His mother had been 60 when she died of the neurodegenerative disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and even though doctors had told the family her case was likely sporadic, not hereditary, Deven still saw 60 as a harbinger of doom. 

It was a few weeks after his birthday that Jill found the stash of wire-transfer receipts in his backpack. During her lunch hours at work, she began searching for an explanation for Deven’s behavior. Friends suggested it might be internet addiction. No, there was more to his transformation. At her job at a continuing medical education company, she has access to medical reference materials, and she would pore over the bible of psychiatric illnesses, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which outlines in plain language the standard criteria for various mental illnesses. Bipolar disorder, an acquaintance speculated. Some symptoms fit, but others did not. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease? Deven seemed to have no problems with his memory or cognition. There were times when Jill almost dropped the hunt, convincing herself she was making too much of Deven’s narcissism. But then another crisis would occur. 

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In mid-December 2013, Deven fell in the couple’s backyard, cracking some bones in his neck. He needed surgery and was out of work for a month. After returning to the school, he was suspended without pay for a month, as a result of the investigation that had begun with the student’s complaint against him the previous May. When the suspension ended, he was reassigned to a pool of nonteaching substitutes. He also started to talk to his oldest friend, Martin Mosbacher, about people he had met on the internet who needed his help — including a woman from Ghana named Hilary and an alleged African princess who asked him to open bank accounts on behalf of her family’s cocoa business. 

“He just sat there, sort of glazed over. I felt like I could rant and scream all I wanted, but it wasn’t really sinking in.”

— Jill Black, ex-wife of Deven

Friends who had just begun to notice changes in Deven’s behavior wondered whether they had been caused by his accident. But Jill knew they had begun before his fall, and she was getting fed up. She began thinking of ending the marriage. Still, she worried that she might be abandoning a sick man. When she and a close girlfriend went away for a weekend, Jill asked for advice: “What does it say about me if I think he’s really ill and I’m divesting myself of him?” Her friend replied: “You can still take care of him and not be married to him.” 

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In February 2014, Jill told Deven she wanted to separate and asked him to move out by September 1. She urged him to get counseling and a neurological workup, and he did eventually see a therapist. But Jill discovered that the therapist knew little about Deven’s internet friends or money transfers. Instead, the sessions were all about the stress caused by the impending divorce. “For somebody who’s a mental health professional,” Jill says now of the therapist, “he clearly had no bull---- detector whatsoever.”

Meanwhile, Deven devoted ever more allegiance to his online friends, most of whom were women — or claimed to be. One night in the summer of 2014, after he had fallen asleep on the sofa with his laptop open, Jill peeked at what he had been typing — an email, as it happened, in which he was providing detailed information to someone about their home equity line of credit. She found other messages that provided access to his credit card accounts. “You can’t even say he was a victim of identity theft,” Jill says. “He was a victim of identity gift.” When Jill confronted him about it, he didn’t seem to understand why she would object. “Look, it’s my life to f--- up,” he said. Any time Jill grew emotional, Deven withdrew, she recalls: “He just sat there, sort of glazed over. I felt like I could rant and scream all I wanted, but it wasn’t really sinking in.”

Around the same time, Mosbacher says, Deven told him he was going to retire and become the financial adviser to a woman in Africa — not that he had a pension to rely on or financial expertise to share. “The really scary part is that he didn’t acknowledge he was putting himself at risk or that his money transfers were out-and-out fraud,” Mosbacher says. Deven was opening accounts in his name to deposit checks from online girlfriends, who then directed him to withdraw money and deposit it in another account specifically for them. But the girlfriends’ checks were fake — a basic scam. “He wasn’t in it for the money,” Mosbacher says. “In his mind, he was helping these women who adored him.”

spinner image Death of Deven Black: A Medical Murder Mystery
Deven Black's wife, Jill, dropped him off at a bus stop after they signed their divorce papers. It would be the last time she saw him alive.
Photo illustration by Holly Andres

Part 4: The unraveling

IN THE FALL of 2014, Deven moved into an apartment in the Bronx, and Jill finally told their son some of what was going on. She didn’t want Jonas to think badly of his father, but she also didn’t want him to learn about Deven’s schemes from a newspaper headline. The following January, Deven was arrested for bank fraud and jailed until Mosbacher posted bail. Jill and Mosbacher hoped jail might finally be the wake-up call Deven needed. It wasn’t. After his release, Deven mainly wanted to talk about the people he had met in jail and what the food was like. That April, he was arrested again, this time on federal bank-fraud charges (to which he would plead guilty in July), and Jill and Mosbacher signed a bond for his release. At this point, Jill and others, including Deven’s sister, Loren, begged him, in vain, to get psychiatric help. Some also noticed that his deep devotion to Jonas seemed to have evaporated. Feiner remembers, “When you talked to him about it, it seemed as if his online friends were the most important people in his life. That was truly heartbreaking.”

In May 2015, Deven was evicted from his Bronx apartment and began living out of his Subaru Forester while still holding down his job. In June, Deven confessed to Loren that he was having suicidal thoughts. He was admitted to the psychiatric unit of New York–Presbyterian Hospital, diagnosed with depression and prescribed antidepressants. A week later, he was discharged back to his Subaru.

This was not a guy who should have been allowed back on the street. He needed supervision.”

— Martin Mosbacher, friend of Deven Black

Could all his symptoms have been caused by a mood disorder? If so, the treatment didn’t seem to be helping. Several weeks after his release from the hospital, Deven called Jill asking for the title to the car, which he sold to pay for a hotel, even though it was worth only a few nights’ stay. When the car money ran out in late summer, he had nowhere to go. He landed at the Bellevue Men’s Shelter, on East 30th Street in Manhattan. In October 2015, he was sentenced by a federal judge for writing bad checks and making bad transfers of $146,000. He had a capable public defender, and a dozen friends wrote testimonies on his behalf to the judge, urging mercy. The judge spared him hard time with a suspended sentence and ordered him to pay back what he had stolen. Some of his friends later regretted writing letters encouraging his release. “This was not a guy who should have been allowed back on the street,” Mosbacher says. “He needed supervision.” 

A month later, Deven traveled to Nyack to meet Jill and sign their divorce papers. He had grown something of a “David Letterman beard,” she recalls. To Jill, Deven seemed blasé, an impassive zombie. As he signed papers to dissolve their 32-year marriage, he could have been filling out a customer-service survey. “It was like he was body-snatched,” a friend says.

Deven asked Jill if she would drive him over the Tappan Zee Bridge to the commuter rail train station, but she had reached her limit of favors to a man who didn’t seem to care about her. “I dropped him at a bus stop in town,” she says. Watching him board that bus was the last time she would see Deven alive.

spinner image Death of Deven Black: A Medical Murder Mystery
Deven Black ended up living out of his car and eventually stayed in a homeless shelter.
Photo illustrations by Holly Andres

Part 5: The end of the line

ON JANUARY 25, 2016, Deven moved again, this time to the Boulevard Homeless Shelter in Harlem. His roommate, Anthony White, 21, had spent the previous night at the Metropolitan Hospital Center, under psychiatric evaluation, following an emotional outburst at the shelter; he had reportedly become convinced that people at Boulevard were stealing his stuff. On a few occasions, residents later said, White had delusions and had threatened to kill someone.

Just before midnight on January 27, 2016, Deven Black was found with his throat slashed. White had fled into the night. We’ll never know what happened between these two men whose fates had brought them together in a small room in a Manhattan homeless shelter. White went missing. Two months later, his body was pulled from the Hudson River. 

The police had trouble reaching Jill — initially they tried Deven’s sister, Loren, thinking she was his wife. Jill’s first inkling that something terrible had occurred came when a New York Daily News reporter called to ask for information about Deven, but then, when he realized the police had not yet reached her, declined to say why he had called. The police confirmed her fears a few hours later. “It was awful …” she notes, trailing off. 

After her shock and grief subsided, Jill focused on finding out exactly what had caused Deven’s decline. At one point her research led her to suspect he might be suffering from a form of dementia, and now an expert at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, neurologist Brad Dickerson, agreed to conduct an autopsy on Deven’s brain. 

Jill’s supposition was correct: Deven’s outrageous behavior, Dickerson concluded, could be attributed to a rare but devastating form of dementia — frontotemporal dementia, or FTD. “The best way to describe FTD is to say that the frontal lobe is shriveling up — because the brain cells are dying off,” Dickerson says. It’s estimated that at least 50,000 to 60,000 Americans currently suffer from some form of FTD. Deven’s particular form of FTD, a behavior variant called bvFTD, is marked by a loss of empathy and judgment. 

spinner image Death of Deven Black: A Medical Murder Mystery
A genetic issue could have caused Deven’s mind’s destruction and the downward trajectory of his life.
Photo illustration by Holly Andres

Three things convinced Dickerson: “First, the story. There aren’t a lot of diseases that could cause that kind of change in judgment and personality.” Second, the family’s history of ALS. Although this wasn’t known when Deven’s mother died, there’s a gene that can cause either ALS or FTD. And 10 months before Deven’s death, his brother, Bret, was diagnosed with ALS, too, and would die from it almost nine months after Deven was killed. The recipe for Deven’s mind’s destruction, then, could have lain in his genes, linked to his mother’s and brother’s related but different fatal illnesses.

Dickerson wasn’t fully convinced, however, until he found, in a microscopic examination of Deven’s brain tissue, a protein called TDP-43, which is considered one of the key markers for this wasting disease of the brain. There is no cure. Even if Deven had received an accurate diagnosis before he died, he could not have been saved. Still, his passage might have been eased. His sister, for example, might have gained control of his finances, something she tried to do but couldn’t without his consent. The family might also have been able to marshal their resources to pay for assisted living and keep him off the street. 

By December 2016, Deven’s life­­ — and his brain — had become a case study at a symposium convened by the Boston Society of Neurology and Psychiatry, a group of doctors and scientists from Harvard-affiliated hospitals and other Boston-area universities. “He’d have loved knowing that these big brains were studying his,” Jill says. She smiles, imagining how Deven might put it: “ ‘You know, I always knew I was Harvard material.’ ”

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The other dementias: What to look for

More than 100 conditions can cause dementia symptoms such as memory loss, personality changes and impaired judgment. The most common, Alzheimer’s disease, is tragically familiar. But other dementia causes are harder to recognize. While disorders that lead to dementia may have no cures, timely diagnosis can help families care for and protect patients. Here are some other dementia diseases and where to turn for more information. 

Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)

Vascular Dementia 

  • Famous sufferer: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
  • Symptoms: Easily confused, trouble concentrating, impaired judgment
  • Help: Alzheimer’s Association

Lewy Body Dementia

  • Famous sufferers: Actor Robin Williams, DJ Casey Kasem
  • Symptoms: Alertness, confusion and balance issues; rigid muscles; visual hallucinations 
  • Help: Lewy Body Dementia Association

Huntington’s Disease

  • Famous sufferer: Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie 
  • Symptoms: Difficulty walking, jerky body movements, trouble speaking clearly, anger
  • Help: Alzheimer’s Association

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) 

  • Famous sufferer: Soap opera star Barbara Tarbuck 
  • Symptoms: Memory and coordination loss, twitching, big mood swings
  • Help: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Foundation

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